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Thursday, 28 March 2013

Twenty-twenty talking

I gave a rapid-fire presentation at the Groucho Club last week. It was one of those PechaKucha things, or Sancho Panzas as my mum would call them. You put up twenty slides and try to say something sensible about them in twenty seconds. Each, that is. A whole twenty seconds per slide.

Well, I don't know if anyone there could follow what I was talking about. I enjoyed the other presentations, though, notably by Phil Stuart of Preloaded (who ran through a bunch of really intriguing and original games that showed the medium is starting to flex its creative muscles) and Dean Johnson of Brandwidth (who showed what his company are doing with Mark Staufer's evolution of the novel, The Numinous Place).

The evening was organized by Four Colman Getty as part of their new Off The Page series of events. The idea is to look at how publishing and technology intersect, and the specific focus of this first one was gaming. You see, it all makes perfect sense.

My thesis was how I'd like to see interactive storytelling evolve. Yep, in 400 seconds or less. For those who weren't there - or even who were, and couldn't follow the machine-gun exposition, I've written up the gist of the argument for the Huffington Post and you can read it right here. Though really I need a few hours to do it justice.

Comments welcome, here or on the HuffPo site. Photos for Off The Page here and copyright Roger Blagg.


  1. “Character – that’s what is compelling about a great story.”

    I agree 99%, with 1% of quibblets. If new forms burst forth and flourish from the mingling together of novels and games on the fertile ground of technology (e.g. “massively multiplayer, ongoing, episodic, interactive soap opera[s]”), then that can only be good and exciting. The greater the variety of expression and interactivity, the better, since we all have our own predilections and interests. By the same reasoning, however, I think that “character” is not necessarily always 100% of what is compelling about a great story; and if we are discussing game–novel hybrids, then we cannot consider their “story” aspect alone, because the “game” aspect is there as well.

    A story that is not character-driven is just a sequence of events and descriptions. This may still exert a potent intellectual attraction: detailed, coherent mythologies, as exercises in world-building, may evoke the same sense of awe and fascination as austere, monumental architecture or mathematical theorems. That may sometimes indeed be enough, and a simple desire to *explore*, with or without an ultimate goal, may be sufficient to make the interactive form of such worlds compelling, for some readers, but then that doesn’t really make a “story”: for that, I accept, one requires the deeper emotional engagement that follows from populating those worlds with characters that develop and that we care about, and I agree that “relationship” should therefore shine as the guiding principle when crafting an interactive story environment. Then again… for all my protestations that the emphasis in “gamebook” should be on “book”, not “game”, I admit that I enjoy fiddling around with gamebook mechanics: rolling dice, managing statistics, and keeping notes. For me (possibly in the minority), that has always added to the experience. It doesn’t get in the way. I recognise that beyond a certain level of complexity, a gamebook/interactive story will be unworkable unless “the device is crunching the numbers for you”, but still, an inkling of what goes on “under the hood”, if only in qualitative or even metaphorical terms (as in your description of “Dreams”), can enhance the appeal of the gameplaying aspect.

  2. You often hear people talking about a game's or story's location functioning as a character in its own right. For example, Corey May's comments about BioShock here:

    What that really means is that the feelings that the game environment evokes in us are so powerful/poignant that we inhabit the environment subjectively. So, whether we have in-game characters to anchor us or not, we experience aware (in the Japanese sense).

    I enjoy gameplay myself - though I have to admit that my favourite game pastime, role-playing, is not really a game in the strictest sense; I might consider whether to spend my points on skill or strength, but there are no ongoing gameplay choices. That's fine. The things thast draw me back are the exploration, the sense of wonder, the interaction with the other player-characters, and the story that emerges from our actions.

    (Incidentally, that's why I hate BS meta-RPGs where you do things like earning story points so that you can temporarily take over from the GM or whatever. Those just miss the point that a basic RPG simulation already has infinite capacity to create intriguing stories that you care about - authorial-style rules just diminish that.)

    Gamebooks aren't really much about gameplay, on the whole. I don't think they need to be. What I like about the medium is that it recreates a role-playing experience but with the possibility to go a little more in-depth into the world and characters ("literary musing", if you like) than you usually have time for in an RPG session with half a dozen players.

    That's why I don't see gamebooks as having anywhere to go in the old explore-a-dungeon genre. Videogames do that better. But no videogame can quite do what I was trying with Frankenstein. I'm not saying that makes it better than a videogame, of course, but if you're working in a medium you want it to have unique strengths. Just as a movie (and I love movies) can never get inside the head of a character the way a novel can, even a great game like Walking Dead can't get as intimate and personal as the interaction in Frankenstein.

    Returning to the game aspect of gamebooks, I like the way Inkle are handling combat in their Sorcery gamebook apps:
    That's a proper set of interesting choices, and for my money it's light years ahead of watching a phone roll virtual dice. Mind you, I would say that - Blood Sword aficionados may recall the True Magi's game of the Spiral of Gold in Battlepits of Krarth. Nothing new under the sun, is there? :-)